The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Posts tagged ‘Eleanor Roosevelt’


When I was in college, one of my classmates had a suggestion for a pleasant way to spend a Saturday evening.  The first part was going to Pizzeria Due for one of their pies (I was up for that).  The second part was going to see a native Chicago comedian, Shelley Berman at his one man stand up comedy show (I was not up for that).

Several years earlier I was unfamiliar with Mr. Berman, but in a foray in New York into Sam Goody’s I had browsed through the closeout section and encountered the album, “The Best of Shelley Berman” and had purchased it after reading the record jacket.  Even though I realized that the jacket contained material that was intended to promote the vinyl it contained, I was curious to hear what it described as Mr. Berman’s “unique” comedy – so I bought it.

If as a child you enjoyed pulling the wings off flies, you probably would find Mr. Berman’s humor enjoyable.  The hour that I spent listening to this record was nothing short of torture as I heard this self-deprecating man describe what a loser he was.  Rodney Dangerfield, famous for his line that, “He didn’t get no respect” would, by comparison, get a 98% approval rating in contrast.

Well, the economics of the proposed evening, my friend had a free extra ticket to see Mr. Berman, and my desire to enjoy a Due’s pizza overcame my better judgment and so I agreed to go.  The hour at the show exactly mirrored my earlier experience with Mr. Berman’s record and I recall fidgeting almost constantly in the seat, hoping that the comic was not feeling well and would cut his routine short.  At the least, I hoped there would be some new material that I had not heard on “The Best of …” that would be amusing.  Sadly my hopes were dashed.

One of the skits that Mr. Berman shared with us that evening was on the album.  It was a purported death bed conversation between Gertrude Stein and her long-term lover Alice B. Toklas as Ms. Stein lay dying.

In the skit, Ms. Toklas is sitting by Stein’s bed.  In a voice that is reminiscent of what we have come to expect of a medium at a séance, she says, “Gertrude.  Gertrude. What is the answer?  What is the answer?”  To this, Ms. Stein responds, “What’s the question?”

Whether that story is true or apocryphal, the question of what’s the question transcends Ms. Stein’s life and writings.  And it lacks only one addition to make it profound.  That addition is, “Who’s asking the questions?”

Eleanor Roosevelt made a profound comment when she said, “Small minds talk about people.  Average minds talk about events.  Great minds talk about ideas.”  If we watch any news show it is apparent that their coverage is intended to appeal to people who, by Mrs. Roosevelt’s definition are either small minded, or at best, average.  No example serves to illuminate this point better than the current discussion over both the partial government shut down and the likelihood of butting up against the legally set debt limit.

We’ve all heard the coverage of finger pointing by all parties involved; the use of provocative labels that are being tossed around; the effects of the shutdown in closing national parks and memorials; how certain benefits owing to veterans and their families are being denied.  This is far from an inclusive and complete list.

And the question these news gurus are invariably focused on is, “Who’s fault is all of this?”  The answer to that question varies, depending on the political leaning of the particular station.  Unfortunately, all the answers that they give are both short-sighted and wrong.

The answer to that question of who is at fault is, “Those who voted to cede their personal responsibility in favor of having government run their lives; those who voted people into office who believe in the philosophy that government can always do a better job than the average citizen; those who believe that they have an unalienable right to entitlement and a minimal level of subsistence; those are the people who are at fault for our present debacle.

The “Federalist Papers” are filled with serious debate over what would be the legitimate authority and role of a new Federal government.  The authors had different ideas.  But that they were great men is implicit in the fact that they had ideas and were not afraid to debate those, sometimes heatedly.  And their conclusion, as clearly expressed in our Constitution, was that the powers that they were willing to convey to a new Federal authority were severely limited, no way reflecting the state of affairs under which we live today.

Were they correct in their conclusions?

Well, the America that they constructed became the greatest country in the world, based on the personal effort of millions of citizens who worked for a better life for themselves and their families.  We became the most industrialized and productive country ever seen on the planet.  We took individual liberty seriously but were not afraid to help out those who were in need or unable to help themselves through individual and collective charity.  We became a land to which all who were oppressed throughout the world journeyed because they knew that in America, opportunity was only limited by a person’s initiative.  Their vision of America lasted for about one hundred sixty years.

Then came Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal.  And in the last eighty years, government has grown and entrenched itself further in our lives, reducing the individual’s ability to make it on his own and, more importantly, characterizing individual success, the driving force behind America’s former greatness, as an example of cupidity and greed.

It would be fair to say that if government can demonstrate that it, rather than the individual, is better able to bring about a more efficient and fairer society, then any rational person would certainly support government growth.  But it doesn’t take a great deal of insight to see that what the growing Federal government has provided is fraud, waste, lack of direction and the largest national debt in world history.

The real questions that we need to ask are, “If this is what we get from an expansion in our Federal government, what do we need to do to get rid of it and go back to letting the individual be the ‘Captain of his fate and the Master of his soul’?  And if you and I are not willing to make the effort to reclaim the America that was given to us by the Founding Fathers, then whom do we think should be responsible for taking up the gauntlet?”


When someone shows exceptional talent, far beyond that with which most of us are gifted, you would think we would celebrate that gift and delight in it.  That is how we view many of our sports heroes and movie stars.  But it has not always been so.

There was a woman born in 1897 in Philadelphia, PA by the name of Marian Anderson.  She was perhaps the greatest classical contralto of the 20th century.  She was a black woman.

Marian Anderson was active in her church’s choir where her aunt noticed her exceptional talent.   She worked with her niece but the family was too poor to be able to afford professional music lessons.  But it was her aunt’s influence which she credited for her pursuing a musical career.  The two of them would go to free concerts whenever the opportunity presented itself.

Because of the accidental death of her father when she was 12 years old, Marian, her mother and two sisters moved in with her paternal grandparents.  The family was unable to send her to high school but years later she did receive her diploma.  She would often be asked to sing a few songs and the twenty-five or fifty cents that she earned would help to sustain the family.

The Pastor of her church and others in the black community saw a star in Marian Anderson and together raised the money that enabled her to take lessons from a private teacher and to attend high school.  In 1921 she graduated and then applied to The Philadelphia Music School but was turned away because of her race.

In 1925 Marian Anderson won a competition that was sponsored by the New York Philharmonic.  It was the break she needed to embark on what would ultimately become an incredibly successful career with glowing reviews from the New York critics.  But racism still held sway even in the liberated north and her career sputtered.

In 1930 she began on a European concert tour, giving her first performance in London.  She found that music lovers on the continent did not share the same racial prejudices as their counterparts back home and for the next four years she enthralled audiences with her performances.

In 1934 she signed as a client with Sol Hurok, the greatest impresario of the 20th century.  He was able to persuade her to return to America and she gave a performance in New York’s Town Hall which received critical acclaim.  But the thing that promoted her career the most, ironically, was racism.

In 1939 she was refused permission to sing in Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution because she was colored.  The District of Columbia similarly refused to allow her to perform in the auditorium of an all-white high school.

As a result, then first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and others, angrily resigned from the DAR.  They further persuaded the Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes to allow her to give an open air concert from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday to a live audience of 75,000 and a radio audience of millions.

The link below will take you to the Secretary’s introduction and to Marian Anderson’s singing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”   There is a twenty second pause after Mr. Ickes concludes his speech until we hear Marian Anderson sing.;_ylt=A0S00My.ovtPaBcAkpr7w8QF;_ylu=X3oDMTBrc3VyamVwBHNlYwNzcgRzbGsDdmlkBHZ0aWQD?p=youtube+marian+anderson&vid=E4667FC736FEE53231E3E4667FC736FEE53231E3&l=5%3A32&

During the Second World War and the Korean conflict, Marian Anderson entertained the troops.  She gave about 70 concerts a year and is widely reported to have been the reason that other black artists like Leontyne Price and Jessye Norman had their opportunity to break into the world of opera.

During the 1960’s she worked in the civil rights movement and became a good friend of Albert Einstein who took her into his home after she was denied a room  by a Princeton, NJ hotel owing to her race.  She stayed with him on several occasions.

In the ensuing years, Marian Anderson was the recipient of many awards, including the Congressional Gold Medal, the George Peabody Medal, and a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement.  She passed away in 1993 at the age of 96 but she left a legacy behind of which all Americans, whatever our color, may be proud.

“Let Freedom Ring.”


“Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”  – Eleanor Roosevelt

There is no question that at different points of our lives and even at different times of the day we allow our minds to operate on settings of either “small” or “average”.  We spend a fair amount of time there.

“Good morning, Mrs. Smith,” we say to our neighbor.  “How are you doing after your surgical procedure?”  Here’s an example of our discussing both a person and an event.  It’s a normal part of our conversation with our friends and acquaintances.  But we could elevate this to that third level by saying, “I am going grocery shopping this afternoon.  Would you like to go with me – or is there anything I can get for you so you don’t have to exert yourself and can rest up?”

Now I will admit that extending an offer of courtesy to an ailing neighbor is not an earth shattering “idea”.  It will not change the course of human civilization or speed us towards a better world – other than for the person whom we are trying to assist.  But as unimportant a thought as offering to get a neighbor’s groceries might be in the scheme of world events – why is that so many of us never think to make the gesture?

I believe there is a simple explanation for why we allow our minds to operate at each level – and I would like to attempt to describe that in reverse order.


When I think of peoples’ conversation as it concerns other people – most of it can be described as gossip and character assassination.  Who enjoys this sort of conversation?  Generally I have found that people who are insecure in their own self-worth spend most of their time engaged in discussing other people.  Somehow they believe that by discrediting and demeaning others they elevate their own stature.  Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth.

Even as a child I realized that most of us unfortunately gravitate to this low level state of mind from time to time.  Today we have the internet to titillate us over the latest celebrity indiscretion – but back then we had Hollywood gossip columnists and magazines devoted to the subject.  There is a baser part of each of us that seems content to delve into this low level of mental operation – at least from time to time.  The trick is to pull ourselves out of the mire and move upward.

If I were to describe this state of mind in today’s terms I guess I would call it the “Social Media Syndrome.”


Thank goodness for sports, tsunamis, other forms of natural disasters and homicides.  Where would our friends with “average minds” turn for topics of discussion without them?  And the fact that we now have virtually instantaneous knowledge of these events provides them with an unlimited source of conversational material.

The other day I was at the dog park.  I went over to say hello to several of the regulars and heard two of the men having a conversation about a baseball game they had seen the day before.  The conversation rapidly turned from a discussion of specific spectacular plays that occurred during the game to one where they went back in time to talk about similar plays which had been made in games ten, twenty and more years ago.  I was astounded they could actually remember those events.  More to the point, I wondered how and why did they remember them?

As I was in a whimsical mood I decided to have a little fun with these two fellows.  So I said, “You guys have such an extensive knowledge of sports and history.  I can’t tell you how impressed I am with that.  Now I’m working on a paper about Italy in the 15th century.  The day that Columbus first landed in the New World happened to be the day of the finals in the all-Italy bocce ball tournament pitting Florence against Venice.  Does either of you remember the final score?”

Apparently bocce ball wasn’t within their area of expertise and after a few seconds of mumbling they resumed their baseball conversation.  I’m sure that my point was lost on them.  But I had a little fun with it anyway.  Every so often I allow my impish side to exert itself and take control of my mouth.

If I were to describe this state of mind I would call it “The Living Vicariously Through Others Syndrome.”


Seldom does humanity produce someone with the abilities of a Leonardo da Vinci or an Isaac Newton.  We call these people geniuses.  But the truth is that even they used just a very small portion of their brains.  Perhaps what differentiates them from the rest of us is that most of us use even less – and they must have exerted some serious effort to utilize as much as they did.  In other words, they tried to improve themselves.

That should give all of us some reason for hope.  While most of us will never operate at their level of brilliance, we can be more “thoughtful” people tomorrow than we are today.  We can aspire to do things that we never imagined yesterday if we only make the effort.

Although the brain is an organ, not a muscle, I am convinced that if it goes unused and unchallenged, just like our biceps it is doomed to languish and atrophy.  If we content ourselves with allowing it to operate in either first or second gear it is bound to do just that.

Why are so many of us afraid to dream dreams and think thoughts that might not only positively improve our own lives but which might change the world?  The only answer is fear – fear of the criticism which might come from those with small and average minds.  Fear of humiliation and ridicule by those whose tools in trade are limited to those instruments of destruction.

I remember a piece of wisdom that my father imparted to me as a child.  I had come home from school the first day I wore glasses.  Several of the kids called me “Four eyes.”  The children making the statement were only acquaintances, but I felt the wound left by their remark.  None of my friends made any comment other than one who said, “Those look good on you.”  When I explained what happened dad said, “Consider the source.”

If I were to describe this state of mind I guess I would call it “The Daring To Be Better Syndrome.”

Each of us has control of how we think and how we live.  If you’ve read this far you have enough curiosity and hopefully sufficient courage to work toward a higher level of thought.  For me that is a personal goal on which I work daily.

It will be a good day indeed when each of us utters the most powerful sentence in the language –  the four words, “I have an idea.”


Sol and Esther came from a small village in Russia and were married by the Rabbi just before they left for America. It was 1905. They settled into their new country and their new home in New York. Sol was a tailor and got a job in a little tailor shop to support his wife and what would become their family of six. Throughout their marriage the two of them only had eyes for each other and their children.

Move forward to 1980. The two of them are anticipating a wonderful celebration for their 75th wedding anniversary. And then Esther became ill. Gravely ill. An ambulance rushed her to the hospital where she was admitted to the intensive care unit.

Dr. Spielberg consulted with Sol outside his wife’s room.

Sol, I wish I could give you a more optimistic assessment – but Esther is fading quickly. Her vital signs are extremely weak and I doubt she will make it through the night. Go in to her and say your goodbyes.”

With a heavy heart, Sol sat on his beloved’s bed and held her hand. Esther opened her eyes and said, “Oh, my beloved husband. We have been married for almost seventy-five years and what a wonderful life we have shared together.”

Do you remember how on our wedding night you made passionate love to me? Do you think that you could once more make love to me before I die?”

Sol had never refused a request that Esther made of him, so he put a chair up against the door, got in bed with his wife and to the best of his ability at his advanced age, made love to her.

Esther was exhausted from this and fell into a deep sleep. Sol got dressed and went into the waiting room, expecting to hear that his wonderful wife had died.

But after an hour, one of the floor nurses came up to him and said that Esther’s vital signs had stabilized. Her pulse and heart beat were normal. Perhaps there was some reason for hope.

It took a week but Esther left the hospital and seemed rejuvenated. Her health continued to improve and Sol and Esther celebrated their seventy-fifth anniversary.

And what a celebration it was. All of their relatives, their children and grand-children and two great-grandchildren were at the hall that their successful cousin Seymour from Detroit had rented for the event. (Seymour owned two car dealerships in that city).

There was an endless bounty of food on the table and a wonderful little band played music to which the guests danced in celebration. All were having a marvelous time – except for Sol who sat in a corner with his elbow on his knee, his head on his fist and a contemplative look on his face – looking more like Rodin’s “The Thinker” than the man celebrating this special event.

Finally cousin Seymour from Detroit came over to him and put his hand on Sol’s shoulder. Cousin Seymour said, “Sol. This is a wonderful celebration. Two months ago you didn’t think you would ever see this happy day. And here you are looking as though you had lost your best friend. So what’s the story?”

Sol responded, “Seymour – if I only knew. If I only knew.”

Seymour said, “So what is with this – if I only knew?”

Sol said, “Seymour – if I only knew – I could have saved Eleanor Roosevelt.”

Moral: Don’t take yourself too seriously.

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